Rebuilding the website, a.k.a. Here we go again...

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A decade ago (yes, it really was ten years) we started a project that looked to turn the council's and public's expectations of our website on their head, building pages and information around customer needs and plain English rather than old service-led structures and terminology: the project.

We started small with a few key services who were willing to put in the time with us to try something different. It was a runaway success, and the feedback from visitors to the site and from the wider public sector won us the backing of our senior management to continue the approach of reviewing and migrating services in phases, rather than taking the 'big bang' approach of rebuilding and launching a complete site in one go.

Though it did take longer than expected, each new review and migration was turned around quicker owing to the buy-in we got from the services we were working with and the range of options for different content layouts that we had built up from previous service reviews. We finally completed the migration and 'flipped the switch' in November 2017, officially promoting the website to the one and only

Since then, we've been tweaking and adding to the site, recording our own 'wishlist' of new features/design/functionality we'd like to build, and taking note of the leaps and bounds our colleagues in different councils are making with their own websites. The latter two points have made us very keen to kickstart a full rebuild of the website, although this time around we'll be taking a slightly different approach.

So why start again?

The world is a much different place than it was, with the use and expectations of online services now forming a standard part of day-to-day life and work. This expectation grew dramatically with the pandemic, which saw the council adopt remote working as the norm, and services striving to keep the same levels of customer support despite our face-to-face contact points being closed. Those we worked with now had a much higher level of interest and investment in getting their online presence right, and some of the new features they requested helped us understand some of the shortcomings of our current website.

Though this was quite a traumatic time and there was a heck of a lot of pressure on everyone (hence why we've not had the time to write any blog posts in a long while), the experience has worked in our favour. Service areas are now very much aware of the need to involve ourselves, customer services and communications teams as key stakeholders in the online solutions they would like to build or procure, and are less likely to ignore our input as we can produce evidence of what tends to go wrong when they don't! This means that key considerations such as accessibility, usability, integration and branding are (mostly) being discussed at the very early stages of those projects.

We've always had the ambition to create the next iteration of the website, and it has been put forward and discussed as part of the council's channel shift programme, but a combination of workload and resource constraints meant that we couldn't put aside the time. However, as some of those constraints have recently eased we realised that we needed to just produce something to back up the various ideas and conversations that we've had, and hopefully that will drive more engagement and investment to ensure the time and resources are available to continue the work.

Are we doing it differently this time?

Yes and no. We'll still be looking at this as a migration project rather than a 'big bang' switch, so that we can learn and iterate the design and fuctionality, and we'll still be working collaboratively with service areas and stakeholders to learn from them and improve how we present information. However, we'll be stricter in the ways we work (mostly providing clearer milestones and deadlines to prevent projects stalling), and more challenging on the type of content we'll be publishing (like reducing the use of PDFs and other attachments when the information could easily be presented on a webpage). We'll also be looking to do a lot more integration with other systems to make the website a bit more seamless for visitors, such as pulling relevant content from other systems onto web pages as 'teasers' (ie using the 'find my nearest' functionality on our website and the location data in our online directory system to show a visitor on our childcare pages the nearest childcare services to them).

In general, people in the organisation are now more understanding of why we are so very keen on meeting the standards that we're legally obliged to meet and the ones we hold ourselves to professsionally, as well as why we take the approach we do in determining the actual needs and requirements of the end users. Yes, sometimes this does mean that they do get confused or frustrated by the amount of questions we raise with them and - where possible - their customers. And yes, this does sometimes mean using the knowledge and evidence of best practice elsewhere to challenge their assumptions about what they think they want, rather than what they need to get the benefits they desire.

Being innovative, but also falling in line with council aims and objectives

Although innovation is something that we do feel passionate about (and we're the ones pushing to build the new version of the website to satisfy our own desires to fix the things we know aren't currently working, and to try some new features and functionality) we aren't 'going rogue' in our approach.

On the back of the 'Digital Transformation Programme' (DTP) from a few years ago that saw the introduction of a number of new critical systems to replace legacy applications and manual processes, there's still a drive to review and revamp the way the council as a whole works. The Shropshire Plan is the guidebook that has been put together to explain to both staff and the public what initiatives will be put into place to make those changes, and the ICT and Digital Strategy explains how we will supply and support the technology that will underpin key parts of the work. Not so coincidentally (more like common sense and logical thinking), a lot of those plans rely on making it easier for people to interact with us, to increase internal efficiency through automation, and making the best of new technology - all of which we aim to do with our rebuild of the website.

There's also a big organisational push to ensure that the new council brand is adopted, which is being led by the Communications team. It's not just a cosmetic project, as we'll be working with them to review the various sub-brands that have emerged over the years across the organisation, and the various physical/email newsletters, social media accounts and websites that go along with them. Though there are cases where these are necessary, some are not, and it's clear that the range of options makes it harder for the public to understand where the information they need can be found, or sometimes that information can appear to be contradictory. Likewise, that range of options makes it very hard to coordinate the marketing and engagement efforts of the council as a whole, and often means services are spending money needlessly or for little to no return on investment.

Where possible and appropriate, those brands will either be tweaked to bring them in line with the council, or merged with others (ie multiple teams within a service area giving up their separate accounts in favour of using a single departmental set of social media accounts to consolodate information and followers), or even decommissioned entirely. We've already worked with a few services to migrate website content from their own sub-sites back on to the main council website, which has ultimately saved time, money and resources for the council.

The brand project and the aims of the Shropshire Plan are enforcing more governance that works in our favour too. For instance, new information that needs to be presented online should be added to the main website by default, unless there is a specific and justifiable need to set up a separate website, with branding needs to be agreed with and signed off by Communications. 

To sum up

All of the experiences and changes we've gone through will be brought into play in our work on the next version of our website. We already knew that collaboration and consultation is the best way to get the full range of requirements, though this time we're going to be managing expectations a little bit more (ie being a bit more honest when we can prove that the 'really good idea' that a service has for their pages flies in the face of what their customers actually need to do), and standing firm on the branding and accessibility requirements. That's not to say that there will be a 'one size fits all' approach to the layout of the pages, as we'll be providing far more flexibility over the way each section of our website can be laid out, though those options will be limited to ensure a consistent look and feel across the website, even when using an approved sub-brand.